I remember standing in Tokyo's Shinjuku Station more than 20 years ago, completely bewildered. Here I was in Japan's busiest commuter station, served by more than a half-dozen train and subway lines and as many as 60 exits, and I couldn't find a sign in English to direct me to where I wanted to go. What a difference 20 years make! I was reminded of how much easier Tokyo is to navigate a few days ago, when I overheard an American tourist asking the concierge of a Tokyo hotel in Ikebukuro (which I was visiting to update my Frommer's Tokyo guide) how much a taxi would cost to Hamamatsucho. The answer: plenty (probably more than $60). "Why don't you take the JR Yamanote Line?" I couldn't help but suggest. "You can get on in Ikebukuro and get off at Hamamatsucho. You don't even have to change trains." He looked at me like I'd just suggested he take a flying leap into Tokyo Bay. What a shame, because getting around Tokyo by public transportation is not only surprisingly easy for a city this size, but it's also a liberating experience.
More than a few foreign visitors have told me they felt great pride in cracking Tokyo's transportation system. Simply put, there's no way to explore the city's many widespread sights unless you take the plunge and board its vast rail network. Once you get the hang of it, you'll find it one of the most user-friendly systems in the world. Whereas you used to have to buy an individual ticket every time you boarded a conveyance, which required deciphering huge transportation maps only in Japanese, there's now a simple solution: the Suica, a contactless card that automatically deducts the fare and can be used not only on JR trains, subways, buses, and private railway lines in Greater Tokyo, but can also be used for purchases at vending machines, convenience stores, and fast-food outlets that display the Suica sign.
Although there are other options available, including one-day cards and metro-only cards, the Suica is by far my favorite. One of the things that makes travel in Tokyo easy is that all lines are color-coded. The Ginza Line, for example, is orange, which means that all its signs and trains are orange. Each line is also assigned a letter (usually its initial), so that the Ginza has the letter "G" and Hibiya the letter "H." Additionally, each station along every line is also assigned a chronological number, so that if you